Movie Review: Bolt
By Kim Hollis
November 21, 2008

They're playing an arcane form of basketball known only to animals.

In the months leading up to the release of Disney's Bolt, there was one thing in the movie trailers and commercials that was constantly capturing my attention. That single thing was a small hamster-in-a-ball, otherwise known as Rhino. He stole every scene in any commercial or trailer that was aired. And although I was excited to see Rhino on the big screen, I also had some trepidation that he might be the only worthwhile part of Bolt. I'm very happy to report that there was no need for such trepidation, as Bolt is a wonderful family film and a delight for all ages.

Bolt follows in the footsteps of other Disney CGI projects such as Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, and like them, it is available in "Real-D", which is a fancy way of saying "digital 3-D". As far as adding to the overall experience, it isn't really necessary to see Bolt in "Real-D". It's probably fun for the kids, but the movie would be perfectly enjoyable just as is. The story and characters are just that engaging.

Naturally, the movie centers around an adorable mutt named Bolt. When we first meet the little fella, he's being selected as a little girl's new pet. We quickly fast forward to the future, where Bolt and his human Penny are having fantastic adventures as they work to save her father from an insidious villain known as "the green-eyed man". The thing is, all of this is make-believe. Bolt is the star of a popular television show, but the producers and crew must constantly do their diligent best to make sure that Bolt is never aware that his life is a fiction. When he manages to escape because he thinks Penny is in peril, the pup's adventures truly begin.

As Bolt searches for Penny, he enlists the aid of a cat - because he knows all cats are agents of the iniquitous green-eyed man. Although Mittens thinks Bolt is insane, she plays along because she's getting some food in her belly and also, she's tied to the dog's leash.

Of course, Bolt and Mittens also encounter the aforementioned Rhino as they venture across the country, and the trio soon comes to resemble a rag-tag Incredible Journey team.

Although the animation isn't quite up to the lofty standards constantly set by Pixar, Bolt is a great-looking film with lots of splashes of bright color and characters who are full of emotion. The humans are drawn as mostly caricatures, but that's okay in this circumstance since the focus is really all about the animals.

Bolt is voiced by John Travolta, but you don't really notice. Oftentimes when bigger stars portray animated characters, it can be a bit of a distraction, and I actually expected that to be the case with Travolta. He's very low-key here, though, and is quite ideally suited to the role. Miley Cyrus is the name that is intended to be a big kid draw, and she's quite solid as Bolt's human, Penny. Mittens is portrayed by Susie Essman, and her wry humor helps to make the black-and-white kitty quite lovable. And of course, Mark Walton is just wonderful as he voices Rhino, an enthusiastic go-getter of a hamster who had me (and the rest of the audience in my theater) in stitches.

The story is ultimately about family, and echoes earlier themes in such animated fare as Meet the Robinsons and Lilo & Stitch. Anyone who has ever adopted a stray or shelter animal will probably be surprised at how strongly the story affects their emotions. I can definitely say that there was a moment in Bolt that impacted me in a big way.

With that said, I didn't mean to imply that there is anything super harrowing in the movie. It's just that as we gain more insight into the characters and their motivations, we become very invested in what happens to them. And as I mentioned at the outset of this review, I hadn't expected to love Bolt and Mittens, but I really did. They are vividly imagined characters with a stunning depth to them.

There's a school of thought that says Pixar is the only element of Disney Animation worth watching. I'm glad that Disney continues to prove that notion wrong. I'll always be a Pixar loyalist, I admit, but with John Lasseter serving as Chief Creative Officer, both arms of the animation studio are achieving real success and focusing on story. In a year where WALL-E and a panda named Po are dominating the landscape of the genre, it's a credit that a character-driven tale like Bolt stands out as not just a terrific animated movie, but really one of the best things I've seen this year.